Jesus makes a number of predictions concerning the imminent arrival of the son of man and his kingdom in the Synoptic Gospels. Such prophetic utterances have caused theologians a great deal of strife as they seem to associate Jesus’ own generation with the looming apocalypse. Jesus’ claim that some of his listeners would see the kingdom of God come in power perhaps elicits the most embarrassment.
(A) Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation,
(B) the Son of Man will also be ashamed of them when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
(C) Truly I tell you,
(A’) there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see
(B’) the kingdom of God has come with power.
As history proceeded, the kingdom, at least the kingdom as popularly conceived, never arrived. Jesus’ generation passed away and the end of history never came.
Yet interpreters have offered a few possible solutions to this apparent prophetic disappointment. One of the most common solutions proposes that Jesus was speaking of his subsequent transfiguration, not of the complete establishment of the kingdom on earth. As such, Jesus’ claim was merely that some of the disciples would live to see a preview of the kingdom on the mount of transfiguration a few days later. They would witness the glorious reigning son of man in his kingdom in a prophetic vision.
Despite the usefulness of this interpretation in alleviating our eschatological anxiety, it remains an unlikely reading for two reasons.
First, Jesus submits very similar statements about his generation in reference to other eschatological events. In the Olivet Discourse, for instance, Jesus claims the Temple will fall and the son of man will come before “this generation passes away” (Mark 13:30). Statements like these (Mark 8:38 included) and the one made in Mark 9:1 should be taken together rather than teased into two unrelated eschatological sayings, one about the eschatological apocalypse and another about the Transfiguration.
Second, the syntactical structure of Mark 8:38-9:1 strongly suggests that the two verses are synonymous. As is common in Hebrew poetry, verse 38 appears to be repeated in 9:1 with slightly different wording. “This generation” becomes “some standing here,” and the coming of the son of man becomes the coming of the kingdom. As they are equivalent, the contents of (B’) can therefore be substituted for the contents of (B) as so: “when the son of man comes in glory he will be ashamed of [some of] those standing here who have not tasted death.”
What this means for the Transfiguration Solution is that if Mark 8:38 refers to the eschatological coming of the son of man on the day of judgement—as Matthew’s substituted “day of repayment” clarifies (Matthew 16:27, cf. 25:31-46)—then so does Mark 9:1. In Mark 8:38-9:1 Jesus predicts not merely that those present will “see” the kingdom, as in a vision; he predicts that they will experience the eschatological day of reckoning in its fullness. This does not come as a surprise since Jesus makes more or less the same claim elsewhere, as mentioned above (cf. Mark 13:30, 14:62, Matthew 10:23, 23:36).
From here, I suggest we refrain from doubling down on flawed interpretations and instead reconsider the nature of the kingdom and the coming son of man. What did these apocalyptic symbols represent? What hopes did they satisfy in the hearts of the early Christians? How did history satisfy or disappoint those hopes?
Before we conclude that Jesus was simply another failed apocalyptic prophet of the end of the world, we should be sure we understand his eschatological message.